“Word Slut” Resources

Monday, 1:17am
Reno, NV
Tell me that you’ve got everything you want, and your bird can sing…” (Beatles)

Howdy…

Got another classic blog post here for you.

The topic is not only evergreen for writers and marketers… but, amazingly, the more arcane referenced website is still operational.

This second site, especially, is a SHOCKINGLY GOOD resource for finding both current buzz words and great slang…

… for when your message cries out for hipness, relevance, “slang nostalgia”, or just a sizzling word or phrase that knocks your reader back on his heels.

Just be careful, and remember Rule #1 for using slang: It’s got to be part of your communication

… so if you suspect for even a heartbeat that you’re going over your reader’s head (or whizzing straight past him without recognition) be sure to translate or explain what you’re saying.

I use a lot of slang in my copy, because I strive to write the same way I speak.

However, I’m quick to use “quotes” around a word or phrase I suspect most readers won’t easily understand…

… and I’ll often restate things in “plain English” (often in parentheses, like this) just to be absolutely positive I’m not losing anyone.

This rule goes double when you use any kind of jarring tactic from Dave Barry’s bag of tricks.  The LAST thing you want from a prospect you’re trying to persuade is a head-shaking moment of confusion…

… no matter how funny it is.

Still, if you want to increase your writing chops, it’s essential to study the masters of the craft in all parts of the culture.  And Barry is certainly a master at humor writing.

Hey, it may come in handy in your marketing at some point, even.

Regardless, knowing how to control the storyline and retain focus while going off on wild verbal joy rides is a great example of advanced writing skill.

I know you’re reading a lot of crap in your free time.  Just mix in a little expert-level stuff, too, so you don’t start thinking hacks like Dan Brown or TV shows like Two And A Half Men are actually “good writing”.  Okay?

Okay.  Here’s the post, from several years back.

And yes, the links are good (and the Double Tongued dictionary is just freakin’ priceless)…

Begin regenerated post:

If you’re gonna slam your copywriting chops into high gear, you have to allow yourself to fall in love with the language.

This concept makes many otherwise strong men and women quiver…

… and it’s because our lame-ass education system does its best to make people hate the language early on.

This antagonism toward English — created by boring homework and pointless drills and dull reading — has saddled most rookie copywriters with a truly sad and shallow vocabulary (that’s your personal list of useable words).

Not only are they clueless about what constitutes a “power word” (one filled with emotional tension, like “humiliate”), but the convoluted way they construct even a simple sentence will put you to sleep.

But that’s why I say “allow” instead of “force” yourself to fall in love. There’s a very easy and enjoyable way to do this that can fix the damage done by brain-dead teachers.

Here are two ways to begin right now:

Snuggle Up With Language Resource #1: The current edition of the online magazine “Slate” (www.slate.com) has a great story about Dave Barry. He’s just retired his column, after 22 years.

If you’ve never read Dave Barry, you’re in for a treat. More important, you need to read him and pay close attention to how he uses simple, common words and phrases to bring his ideas alive.

The guy is a master Word Slut, clearly in love with language and the amazing power language has to rattle our cages. Read the article titled “Dave Barry — elegy for the humorist” by Bryan Curtis critically, and try to understand the skill required for this kind of mastery.

Snuggle Up With Language Resource #2: While researching linguistics (I have strange hobbies), I also came across one of the best sites on current slang I’ve ever found. Go to http://www.doubletongued.org and just start clicking on the words listed there.

Warning: You better allow an hour or so per visit, cuz this is good stuff.

My favorite “new terms” the site has defined (and given fascinating histories for) are rat spill, metric butt-load, eye-wreck, ghetto pass, duckshove, road diet, listicle and BlackBerry prayer.

If you can go to this site and NOT find a new word to use in your next ad, then you’re hopeless.

The best copywriters are all dedicated Word Sluts. We delight in finding and using fresh slang and old forgotten cliches — anything that works to increase the readability of our copy.

But you must be careful — you cannot use words that aren’t clearly understood by most readers.  This forces you to write at around a fifth grade level (which most newspapers aspire to).

You start using too many fifty-cent words (big ones that most people aren’t familiar with) and you will lose large percentages of your audience. This, of course, will murder your response.

But that’s why reading guys like Dave Barry is so important.

He never uses a word that isn’t instantly understood by anyone able to read a newspaper. And yet, by having a deep “bag” of words to choose from, he is not limited at all.

Simple language, lovingly arranged in the right way, can still be amazingly powerful.

Enjoy.

Stay frosty,

John

43 Responses to “Word Slut” Resources

  1. This post reminds me of something I read by Ursula LeGuin…
    …She said when she was young it was not handsome guys that turned her on but guys who used words that she had never heard before…

  2. James says:

    The best and worst thing about modern slang is that often words are understood only by a particular group in a certain demographic at a certain point in time.

    If you know your market will respond to slang that is emotional and meaningful, do it but realize that you will be eliminating or turning off most of the world who does not talk like that. I guess some people will make big money with focused targeting if they have great copywriting skills.

    • John Carlton says:

      It’s not hard to know what words resonate with your market. In fact, if you DON’T know, you’re not doing good marketing.

      Too many writers focus on the readers who complain. Quick tip: Your best customers won’t complain, and often won’t give you a thumbs-up, either — they just buy, and spread the word to colleagues.

      Sell the foxes, not the dogs. (Quote from Halbert)

  3. Kellie says:

    I totally agree that Dave Barry has such a great way of using the English language. I still have a couple of (highly yellowed but hilarious) clippings from his columns. The one about his experiment with a can of Rave, a roller-blade Barbie and a pair of boys underwear always makes me laugh.

    He still maintains a blog on the Herald website. I try not to go there too often as I end up wasting at least an hour.

  4. alan says:

    The Retirement of Dave Barry from writing is is a sad day. He was actually funny . Modern society’s idea of humor is pathetic

  5. David Melamed says:

    I Don’t know if I agree with you James. People like to feel hip and cool. I know when someone uses an acronym that I never came across, but I figure it out on my own, I get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. If I come across slang that I decipher, I feel cool and hip.

    I think using the right slang will make people identify with your writing, even if that slang isn’t a common word they use.

    Old people can drink Pepsi even though its for the new generation. Marlboro always targeted men, yet has most of the female smoking population.. Just because your marketing targets a specific audience, doesn’t mean it excludes other consumers… After all, people are very complicated and relate to (and/or want to associate with) all sorts of things outside of their stereotype…

    Of course there are times when using slang could be a mistake or taken offensively, like when you as the writer are an outsider trying to fit in and the reader sees right through it…

    With all communication you need the content to match with the writer and the reader.

    • John Carlton says:

      Actually (interesting story) Marlboro started out as a women’s cigarette, but failed. So it was reborn, almost as a joke, as a super-macho cowboy smoke.

      The image of the cowboy was a sort of slang, too… shorthand for “takes no shit, has adventures”…

      • Scott says:

        Oh, that’s it. That’s priceless. I just found the tag line for my life.

        “takes no shit… has adventures.”

        Where’s my hat dammit!

  6. Shirley Bass says:

    Thank you, John. You’re so right — this is a wonderful treat.

  7. Bluestar says:

    Wow–I remember running my writings through one of those assessment things that determined what level they were at. I was found to be writing at a 5th grade level even though I was in college, same thing happened again recently on my own website, and I recall feeling disappointed. I didn’t know that was the ideal!

    The problem with teachers is also that schools can be pretty strict on HOW they are permitted to teach. The system is braindead, more than most teachers.

    • John Carlton says:

      It’s all about communication, Bluestar. The best writing always, at it’s foundation, simple and direct. You can add better power verbs as you go, but start with the basic story. Another tactic: Talk to me like I’m 10 years old. Seriously — if you’ve ever been around 10 year olds, you know they’re wicked smart, very sensitive to how adults think, and totally attuned to the culture. They just have a more compact vocabulary… which is the best way, still, to communicate clearly.

  8. His writing is really gross and crude but his use of language is worth studying. I’m talking about Tucker Max. Just finished his second book and the man is a master of gross and disgusting but the language is high art.

    • John Carlton says:

      Harlan also turned me on to Jean Sheppard, of “Christmas Story” fame… being on the west coast, I never heard his radio stories, and I love his books now. Must-reads for writers. Thanks again, Doc…

    • Dan says:

      I second the recommendation for Tucker Max. I recommend him to my fiction writing group when someone’s writing is a bit too “proper” and “formal.”

  9. Mike Hill says:

    This was worth the hour-long journey just to re-visit the Beatnik Glossary. This was a very creative era in the development of American slang.

    It makes me laugh when I see “hip” words and phrases that are used today that were “hip” fifty years ago!

    • John Carlton says:

      What goes around, comes around, Mike. My own vocabulary is so loaded up with slang from different generations that I have to be double-aware not to mix ‘em up too much. Using words like “swell” (from the 30s), “groovy” (60s), “ha-cha-cha” (40s), “sick” (90s), “cyberpunk” (80s), etc, can create a verbal stew that confuses the uninitiated…

      BTW: I picked up the old slang from watching cartoons obsessively as a kid. I was entranced with the Max Fleischer studio stuff (Betty Boop, Popeye) from the 30s, and Warner Bros. from the 40s (Bugs Bunny)… it startled my folks to hear me speaking in slang from when THEY were kids…

  10. Venus Brown says:

    Slang is tricky. What we understand when we’re talking with each other face-to-face is one thing, but slinging slang at our marketing targets can just as easily turn them off. Especially if they’re just a bit (or more) younger than us. Then, if we don’t use the slang just right we come off sounding lame and out of it. (Or whatever it is those dratted kids are saying these days!)

  11. Are you looking for straight verbs? This might be a redundant question…

    Also, David Sedaris first chapter of Holidays on Ice is fantastic. He auditions to be an Elf in NYC at Christmas time.

  12. “Filthy Stuff” as always John. Thanks…again.
    David

  13. leon Noone says:

    G’Day John,

    I know that it makes me sound old-fashioned, but I learnt so much from Robert Gunning. His “Technique of Clear Writing was first published in, I think, 1962.

    He doesn’t address the issue of using slang. That comes naturally to we Aussies anyway. But he does have 10 principles to follow.

    My favourite is “write to express, not to impress.” “Write the way you talk” is another I try to follow at all times.

    You’re probably familiar with his work. But it’s always worth mentioning as we struggle to keep afloat in an ocean of waffle and hype.

    Best Wishes

    Leon

  14. Gabrielle says:

    Wow, you just pulled some questions I had out of thin air, waved your magic scarf and pulled the rabbit out of the hat.

    I was searching for some humor writing to study for getting the voice right for my blog. As well as a way to get around slang words for those who don’t know what social media is yet. Thank you.

    Definitely agree with you on falling in love with the language to express. I’m learning good use of language from reading fiction by Neil Gaiman and TC Boyle. In my opinion, they express language fluidly.

    • John Carlton says:

      Good luck on finding your voice, Gabrielle. That’s the key to becoming a “real” writer, beyond being a hack (though the world still needs hack writers, too). Finding your voice opens up whole new worlds of communication possibilities…

  15. John,

    Lovingly and powerfully presented. Always, always something for my treasure trove!

  16. Niki Schafer says:

    I realised, I’d stopped breathing halfway through this. My brain went into hyperdrive finding suitable homes for “eye-wreck” and “Blackberry prayer” and gave up on lesser necessities such as inhalation.
    Must write now…
    Thanks John. As always.
    Niki

  17. John Gilger says:

    Great resources. Thanks.

    Sometimes we forget about the older masters of our craft, like Mark Twain. He not only had a way with painting word pictures in my mind, but his mastery of dialog put the reader right in the middle of the action.

    And Twain is only one of many that inspired my love of language, turning me into another “word slut” ;-)

  18. Peter Wright says:

    Thanks for those links to other examples of good writing John.

    I am an old survivor of a British type of education and a life in the colonies. When first arriving in North America I thought that a very different type of English must have been taught in schools here.

    Fortunately I found your blog and my faith in the future of good writing was restored.
    Thank you

    • John Carlton says:

      Some of my favorite word sluts are British — going back to Monty Python, up through Eddie Izzard and R. Gervais…

      Americans seldom realize how CHEATED they are in this crimped education system. The English language is the richest one on earth, easily adaptable to slang and new words (unlike the Latin-based languages, which have to do gymnastics to avoid incorporating slang or English)…

      … and yet the average American’s vocabulary is a weak-ass stingy mess. Wizards like Dave Barry make the most of it, but he relies on words that Americans recognize, but don’t USE in everyday life.

      I see signs of change, though…

  19. ken ca|houn says:

    Agree with points re straight writing; though I find it’s a challenge to write at 5th grade level since I have two degrees; so I miss a lot of my potential mass market (many of my customers are engineers/doctors etc, since I write to that level educated group).

    Right usage of slang is essential; that’s relatively easy.

    It’s tough sometimes to ‘make it basic’ and to write in a way that’s easy to read (particularly important since many customers have english as second language, from other countries); eloquence and articulation are elicited with more specific, advanced words that convey shades of nuance better than ‘basic’ words, though that’s the right approach for mass appeal. It’s still a challenge.

    Good tip to read columnists, they do a great job of relating in a way that’s easy to understand.

    still like to use my 5-syllable words but not making as many sales as I could because of it, tho (part of it is admittedly classist, I like to be high faluting sounding, as aristocracy should be; though that’s not the best approach to connect with the masses) –

    -k

  20. Dana Houser says:

    This is why I keep coming back. Great resources, and I always click away knowing more than when I clicked the link that brought me here.

    Kinda like going to the bar, but I don’t always remember what I learned there.

    -Dana

  21. It reminds me of Barry Zinsser when he wrote: “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

  22. Apart from Dictionary.com, Doubletongued.org is one of the best things online…

  23. Robert Scanlon says:

    I was like blown away by your post John.

    (51-yr-old emulating current young person – well actually I’ve also heard people my age using “I was like …” … cringe.

    I love language and good slang, but hate the abuse & laziness that is an excuse for self-expression.

    Thanks again for the brain-stimulation!

  24. Jordan says:

    Hi John,

    Freakin’ awesome blog post. I’m constantly looking for ways to reach my audience and the sites you point out are priceless.

    This is totally off topic, but would it be too much to ask for you to put a favicon on your site so it’s easier to spot in my bookmarks? Just a thought…

  25. Michelle says:

    Slang doesn’t always work across continents… just remember those “thongs” and “suspenders” ;)

  26. Bill Davis says:

    Thanks for the awesome post (I love me some Dave Barry). I especially enjoyed (enjoy? because I’m still on that page) the doubletongued website.

    What a goldmine that is! Thanks!!!

  27. sam parker says:

    so now the word slut has gone so far that we literally needs to rethink about it and by the way I wonder how you even dared to write a whole blog spot on this one word?:P But thanks a lot for such a nice and awesome post.

  28. Jesse says:

    John,

    What a brilliant piece of content…

    I will have to say the headline truly hooked me into reading it…

    Seriously, who in there right marketing mind could resist.

    I have to added it to my marketing bag of tricks..right besides my “Power Words” report you totally hooked me up with inside your simple writing system…

    Keep knocking out the killer copywriting content…

    Jesse

  29. David Guion says:

    I got to this post by following a link. After writing for scholarly journals for 30 years or so, I started blogging. I fully realized that I’d have to write shorter sentences and adopt a more conversational style. I’ve enjoyed reading and learning from you and previous commenters. I will be back!

  30. “Sell the foxes, not the dogs. (Quote from Halbert)”

    To cool!

  31. [...] http://www.John-Carlton.comIf you love language — and you should, as a marketer whose main job is irresistible communication — you’re gonna appreciate this. [...]

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